If European leaders were hoping that Brexit was a one-off flash of Euroscepticism, Italy’s election will have come as a nasty shock.
The double-edged sword of proportional representation delivered Italy’s first far-right government in decades, a coalition of anti-migration and populist rhetoric that took advantage of a lifeless left-of-centre party to gain 44 per cent of the vote.
At the heart of this coalition is Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, taking up a quarter of the national vote all on its own, which is no small feat under Italy’s voting system.
Meloni blends a unique ‘girlboss’ aesthetic with no-holds-barred populist policy, heavily criticizing European Union leaders and Italy’s immigration policy. She has been extremely effective at modernizing the rhetoric of her predecessors in the Italian right, including that of her coalition partner, Silvio Berlusconi.
The success of such explicit populism proves two things:
First and foremost, Eurosceptic thought isn’t going away any time soon. The fact that three different parties, all with different groups of supporters, have been able to build a coalition centred around rejecting the European project means there is a far greater commitment to nationalism than the EU has been hoping for.
Secondly, this election has proved that the EU’s ham-fisted interventions into national referendums almost always backfire. Like the Brexit referendum, where the pleas from Brussels were met with uniquely British stubbornness, Italy rejected thinly-veiled warnings to elect a government of their own choosing.
Europeans are proud and have a deep love for their history. We have already seen one former empire depart from the EU, and it may well be that many Italians had Brexit on their minds when they cast their ballot.
The EU has once again proved it doesn’t understand how it’s perceived by some of its members. Opining on local issues might work for France and Germany, but countries like Italy and Britain tend to be more rebellious. Von der Leyen issued warnings on the Italian election against the so-called far-right party, commenting: “If things go in a difficult direction, I’ve spoken about Hungary and Poland, we have tools.” She was of course referring to recommendation by the European Commission to suspend some 7.5 billion euros in funding for Hungary over corruption, suggesting that if the Italians elect a government that Brussels does not like, they may have funds blocked. This sparked outrage in Italy and other countries like Poland, fuelling the fire of resentment toward the EU and potentially leading people to vote for Meloni out of spite against the Union.
Feelings of spite and nationalism will be the heart of Euroscepticism going forward. Despite the years of fumbled negotiations, Britain has proved that leaving the EU is, in the most technical sense of the word, possible. There is a relatively coherent model for what existing in Europe away from Brussels looks like.
The biggest mistake the EU made was thinking that Brexit would act as a warning to other nations. Instead, Italy has proven the opposite: Euroscepticism is alive and kicking, and only grows stronger as multilateral meddling increases. Italy’s decision this election has a lot of ramifications for the country and its people, but its biggest impact, on Europe’s wider political culture, might not even be fully visible yet. We’ll have to wait and see.